Monday’s guest column is written by Suzie McCarthy, a University of Virginia politics graduate student who is studying the impact of social media on political movements.
On June 10, I was sitting down to a Sunday brunch in Northern Virginia when my phone vibrated, signaling a new e-mail message. The subject line: “Teresa Sullivan to step down in August as UVA President.” In complete shock, I read the e-mail from Helen Dragas and Mark Kington, the top two leaders of the university’s governing board.
It was one of the most unsatisfying e-mails I have ever read. Dragas and Kington gave no explicit reason for Sullivan’s sudden resignation and praised her “stewardship” and reputation as a “much respected educator.” If the e-mail ended at that point, I might have been willing to believe that it was a mutual decision.
But toward the end of the message, Dragas and Kington positioned themselves as the protectors of the legacy of U-Va founder Thomas Jefferson and implied that Sullivan was an enemy of that legacy. This charge created a high burden of proof, but they did little to substantiate their claim.
By Wednesday of that week, June 13, I reached a point of outrage over the lack of transparency and apparent hubris of the board members. Looking around on Facebook, I saw evidence of similar outrage. A fellow grad student posted a link to an online petition begun by a U-Va. alumnus in Los Angeles calling for the reinstatement of the president. In the comments section of the petition I saw numerous posts by alumni and students expressing disbelief and anger over the seemingly arbitrary decision.
I decided to fight back by creating a Facebook group called “Students, Friends, and Family for the Reinstatement of President Sullivan.” In less than two weeks the group had over 16,000 members from around the world.
I was with several thousand others on the Lawn when I heard the news. A cheer rose up through the crowd, along with chants of “U-V-A” and “Sullivan.” Everyone was laughing and crying. People were shaking my hand and thanking me for making this happen. It was a moment I will never forget.
Student protests are a common occurrence. Such resounding wins are not. The key to our success lies solidly in the ability to bring together a critical mass of the university community, which includes faculty, staff and alumni. Central to this achievement was keeping the movement from becoming a stereotypical anti-establishment movement that would have alienated the majority of the faculty and many alumni. This was not an easy task.
I hope that, by sharing how we fought for academia and accomplished our goal, our movement might serve as a template for similar movements at other universities. Here are my tips for others:
1) Message: Keep the message short and simple. Determine what you want to accomplish and stay on message. Our Facebook group’s goal was to get a critical mass of members in order to draw media attention and put pressure on the board to reinstate Sullivan. Once this goal was accomplished, I closed the group to further comments because our movement was over.
I then created another page, UVA United for Honor, with a new goal to promote Jefferson’s ideals of honor, civility, and transparency. This created a place for former group members to continue the dialogue even though our original mission had been fulfilled. I might utilize this page to mount a series of phone and e-mail campaigns in the lead-up to the board’s annual retreat in August.
2) Civility and moderation: I wanted to draw as wide an audience as possible, and I knew that the political diversity of the U-Va. community made it imperative that the movement be absolutely nonpartisan. Similarly, we needed to reach across income levels and ages, so I made sure to eschew any anti-establishment trajectory. Many radical social media-driven movements turned violent, which was the last thing I wanted.
I strove to create a place of dialogue and debate as well as a clearing-house of information concerning the latest developments. I set up four rules for the forum: first, no personal attacks; second, no profanity; third, no threats; fourth, keep it nonpartisan. I encouraged members to private message each other if they wanted to have a political discussion. If any group member violated these rules, I would delete their comment.
For the 14 days between starting the site and celebrating Sullivan’s reinstatement, I spent 18 hours a day, on average, moderating comments and promoting discussions.
3) Mobilization: Give the group something to do. There was a lot of anger over Sullivan’s forced resignation, and it only grew when the student newspaper, The Cavalier Daily, published e-mails that were obtained through a public information request. A Facebook group is a great way to make productive use of outrage.
For example, the day after the board appointed an interim president, everyone was angry and depressed, so I launched “Operation Firestorm” with the goal of creating a media firestorm to greet the governor when he returned from a trip to Europe. The Facebook wall quickly turned from a place of lamentation to a place of grim determination.
The group gained a sense of unity and common purpose. Group members posted letters they had sent and replies they had received. The group worked together to create a master document of contact information. I was able to use the group to get members to keep up the e-mail and phone call pressure daily. Many group members did not initially realize that the utility of a phone call was not the individual message but, rather, the mass quantity. The sheer number of communications that came from the thousands of group members put pressure on the board to maintain a dialogue with the public.
Our movement’s culminating moment was the “Rally for Honor” held on June 24. It was attended by several thousand people and featured over 30 speakers ranging from student leaders to noted professors to the vice mayor of Charlottesville. It was planned in five days entirely through Facebook.
When I created the event, I listed what I needed: an on-the-ground organizer, a sound-system, flyers and speakers. The offers flooded in. A few examples: A Charlottesville business owner was put in charge of all on-the-ground operations. Several people, including a graphic designer, offered to help with flyers. A U-Va. alum with public relations experience offered her services pro bono. Faculty members rallied speakers so we could get representatives from as many schools and departments as possible.
4) Media: Recognize that the media is one of your most powerful allies. I caught their attention by posting comments on all of the news stories regarding Sullivan’s resignation, along with a link to the Facebook group. I sent e-mails to the reporters who had written each article informing them of the group and our mission.
Whenever I did an interview, I saw a huge jump in group membership. Within five days of starting the group, it had more than 6,000 members.
From then on, I received daily e-mails and phone calls from reporters asking me what was new with the movement. I made sure that there was always an ongoing operation or upcoming rally to discuss in my interviews.
More often than not, grassroots Facebook movements are skeptical of the mainstream media. Yet in this case, the media played an essential role in extending our reach and spreading our message.
5) Perspective: Above all, keep your eye on the prize and encourage group members to do the same. Every step that you take is part of a larger strategy to accomplish your demands. The rally was carefully planned to send the message that the U-Va. community was united behind the reinstatement of Sullivan and that the community would act with honor and civility. I had to convince many group members not to turn the rally into a protest. I knew that it would not take too much more to get the board to reinstate Sullivan. We needed honey, not vinegar. Strategic thinking was key to what we accomplished.
While I believe that U-Va. is an exceptional university with an exceptional community of honor, our accomplishment need not be exceptional. Our movement demonstrates the power of social media when used in conjunction with traditional media. We successfully created a peaceful movement to mobilize students, alumni, friends, and family around the world in a way that would have been a pipe dream just a few years ago.
You can also follow Suzie McCarthy on Twitter, @suzimcc.